Russ and me and the rainbow at Gullfoss Falls, Iceland

Russ and me and the rainbow at Gullfoss Falls, Iceland

The opportunity to visit Copenhagen, Denmark began when a bright, red-headed newly-arrived exchange student from Denmark walked into the Merritt Island High School newspaper office and announced in perfect English that she wanted to participate. Little did I know then that my position as Editor and Else’s as Proof Reader (with her grammatically correct English) would form a bond that has endured more years than I wish to publicize.

It was her Facebook search, many exchanged emails catching up those years, and later a visit by her, her charming husband Erik, and their group of witty and affable golfing buddies visiting the Orlando, FL area, that culminated in my husband, Russ, and I selecting Copenhagen the next year as our next big adventure. Coincidentally, Else and Erik celebrated their wedding anniversary while here and we would be celebrating ours while there.

Once Russ began his meticulous research into Copenhagen and took the advice of our Danish friends to fly Icelandair, he received a package offer from the airline that was too tantalizing to ignore. If we stayed two nights in Iceland, a necessary layover between Orlando International Airport and Copenhagen, we would receive a reduced rate for the overall visit.

canal rides at Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark. photo by Karen

canal rides at Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark. photo by Karen

Russ reserved rooms in Copenhagen and in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik and then we told Else we were coming, hoping that for at least one of those days or nights, we’d be able to connect with them and our other new friends. We were overjoyed and overwhelmed by the generous invitations and detailed agenda plans Else sent, indicating that each day she and Erik would guide us through Russ’ assembled list of places to visit. Else included places that are insider’s treasures. She noted places and events for us to visit on our own and

we’d be joined by our new Danish friends, Thomas and Inge Hamstrup, Christian and Merete Andersen, and Arne and Jette Mollgaard.

Here are our opinions about experiences you may want to enjoy or avoid.

ICELANDAIR, KEFLAVIK INFLAVIK INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, AND DOLLAR RENT-A-CAR: Here, There and Back and the Agony of the Unexpected

All trips begin with transportation. Ours began at Terminal A of Orlando International Airport. Icelandair had just relocated to OIA the week before from Sanford-Orlando International Airport, so perhaps that explains the chaos that ensued.

The boarding ticket agent was obviously new. She announced that everyone could board and the crowd surged forward like a fire sale at Filene’s Basement in New York City. I’ve seen bar brawls that were more mannerly. Finally, an obviously more experienced agent yelled out directions for a more orderly boarding procedure.

Are you old enough to remember the cute uniforms that svelte female flight attendants wore back when they were still called stewardesses on airlines such as TWA and Pan Am? I was having flashbacks to those glory days of airline food trays that resembled Swanson’s TV dinners, when I realized the Icelandair flight attendants looked like they’d stepped out of the pages of a 70’s TV airline commercial. Yes, they were all uniformly young, attractive, and thin, but it was the fitted jackets, neck-circling scarf, pumps, pencil skirts and G.I style caps perched securely to hair that was twisted into a tidy bun centered on their nape that really evoked days of airline yore.

Once airborne, the trip to Keflavik International Airport was smooth and easy. Keflavik is a hub for much European-bound travel and was our stop before switching planes for Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport. The explosion of tourist travel has obviously overwhelmed the airport’s management team. Can’t tell if it’s bad management, poor design, poor planning during the expansion, or just an indifference about travelers that rendered stopping here such an ordeal. The airport is contemporary, but with a sterile imprint. Few signs and even fewer information support staff were available to assist with questions.

When we did find an airline official, we were told to go to B gate. Not B followed by a number, just B. There is more than one and the one we were directed to wasn’t correct. We stopped three more airport personnel before being directed accurately. A barricade blocked the door labeled Gates A and B. Once removed, the immense double lines snaked slowly down a double set of stairs. What you don’t learn until you’re at the bottom of the two-story staircase is that A gate passengers were moving through and all B gate passengers were to gather in a tiny space no bigger than an 8-foot bedroom and wait until our turn to board. We also weren’t informed this could take another half-hour of inching down the staircase and then standing around some more until you board a bus that then delivers you to the airplane. Outside. On a cold, wet day.

Most appalling though, was the elderly, frail couple in front of us trying to mount the steep airplane stairs while carrying their hand luggage and trying not to be blown off their feet by the gusting wind. No airline personnel offer to help and we had too much of our own luggage to be of assistance. The plane left a half-hour late.

We celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking the four-hour trip back to Iceland from Copenhagen, sad we were leaving our Danish friends and remarkable experiences, but excited to visit Iceland.

When we didn’t have to remove our shoes, even without showing our global entry card, we decided our initial difficult flight experiences must have been flukes. That blissful thought vanished when once again, an inexperienced gate agent called for everyone to board… at once.

Maybe it was the incessant announcement that the flight was overbooked and the first eight people to volunteer to be scheduled later would receive 400 cash Euros and meal tickets that caused a large tour group to surge forward, thoughtlessly pushing aside anyone in their way. Finally, a more experienced male agent yelled for order, except his microphone didn’t work, so no one heard him. After much frustration at the melee, he finally got the microphone to work and called for boarding by rows. Unbelievably, we only left 15 minutes late.

In Iceland it is unnecessary to go through customs if you have nothing to declare. Unfortunately, there were no signs or airport personnel to inform you of such. We just followed the herd—er, other passengers, and kept going.

Russ had rented a Dollar Rent-A-Car for our two days in Iceland. He’d fastidiously read the guidebooks about the cost of tours, the waits for transportation, and that getting around Iceland is quite easy as there are few roads outside of Reykjavik, the capital.

We usually rent from Hertz, but in this case, Dollar was considerably less. We circled inside the airport several times looking for the Dollar kiosk. We asked other car rental agency staff, airport workers, and airline crew: “Where is Dollar”? We received blank stares.

Before leaving for our trip, Russ had verified the rental. He was told they were at the airport. Ah, semantics. They are “at” the airport… just not “in” the airport. They are actually a good half-mile away, across parking lots and a field, in a small building near a hotel. Schlepping luggage in the windy, biting 45-degree weather when you are already tired and have had a frustrating journey did not soothe our attitude.

Then it got worse before it got better. The young clerk had our reservation but not Russ’ profile, which earmarked us for a higher level car. She wanted him to sign a four-page document without first reading them. That won’t ever happen. After his blood pressure flushed his face an unhealthy hue, she finally said, “We just use the Dollar name. We’re not really part of the international brand.”

That did it. We walked over to the nearby Hertz building where cars are returned and one of their staff drove us back to the airport so we could rent a car. Even $200 for two days was cheaper than taxis and tours we’d have otherwise had to take.

Our actual visit road-tripping through Iceland was fabulous, other than trying to decipher long, unpronounceable street names and less-than-clear maps. I am going to tell you about all we did and ate and the divine boutique hotel we stayed in, but first, let’s wrap up our airport and airline experiences. I know you are waiting with baited breath to know what happened next.

We were told that with the airport’s expansion, construction was a nightmare and to leave 3-1/2 hours for the hour-trip from Reykjavik to return our car, pass through two different security areas and get to our plane. I slipped through the first check point easily. Russ didn’t. For some reason, the guard didn’t like the look of Russ’ quart-size toiletry bag and made him repack his toiletries into another bag handed to him… the exact same size!

We walked next to the U.S security gate, which wasn’t open for another hour. Decided to go eat. The airport food terminal has vast numbers of eateries, but seats are as accessible as parking spaces at a mall during Christmas. Try holding onto food trays while toting all your bags and inching through hordes of people all vying for seats. We ate, we easily passed through the U.S. security passport control gate and headed for our terminal, where we sat for two more hours. We were lucky. We got seats. There are maybe two seats for every 15 people waiting. The air was fraught with tension. Did I mention our terminal was on the second floor and the only restrooms are across the terminal and down a flight of stairs? I was lucky I had Russ to watch my bags when I hurried off.

Our gate entrance was locked until 4:30, near to the time we were supposed to board. We were directed to a small, stuffy room to once again wait for a bus ride to our plane. Until then, we didn’t even know we were going to board outside. There are no facilities, no water, and no one telling us what is happening and when. We finally are told (because a passenger spoke the local language and overheard a gate agent’s conversation) that there is yet another delay because the airplane’s crew hadn’t yet landed from another flight.

While waiting for the bus, an elderly American woman hobbling with a walker demanded to know how she was to get on the bus, let alone climb the plane stairs. She and her companion were physically unable to do any stairs, let alone simultaneously tote their carry-on luggage. Said she’d been at the airport since 1 pm and no one ever mentioned going outdoors or having to climb lengthy stairs to board. The Icelandair bilingual crew just looked at her, offering no help. If Orlando International Airport hears how America’s disabled are treated, Icelandair may be in for a rude awakening. The flight left late. No surprise.

COPENHAGEN: A City That Preserves Its Storied Past While Embracing Its Progressive Future

room at Hotel Alexandra, Copenhagen. 60's décor, each person gets their own comforter. photo by Karen

room at Hotel Alexandra, Copenhagen. 60’s décor, each person gets their own comforter. photo by Karen

HOTEL ALEXANDRA

Hotel Alexandra has many pluses going for it as a tourist hotel. It sits smack in the middle of downtown, just blocks away from museums, Tivoli, Town Hall Square, the University of Copenhagen, shopping and restaurants. Another plus is that all 61 guestrooms were recently tricked out in 50’s and 60’s décor. Each room was uniquely adorned with mid-century vintage furniture from that time period. Chairs and bookcases representing a history of Danish craftsmen were prominently displayed on each floor of each hallway. Even the front desk staff were dressed in 60’s apparel. Dark slacks and white shirts for the guys. Form-fitting shift dresses for the women.

The oversized keys were vintage (read expensive to have replicated if misplaced). Upon exiting the hotel, we were required to place them in a basket on the front desk. The staff was always polite, but unlike staffing we’ve found elsewhere, not particularly friendly or welcoming.

Our superior-labeled room, meaning larger than some but not as large as the suites or rooms that were a hundred or two dollars more per night, had one of the hotel’s two balconies. The bed was comfy, but as Denmark was having an Indian summer and air conditioning is not available, we opened the balcony door to air out our stuffy room. The constant drone of street traffic precluded that solution. The heat and stuffiness made sleeping difficult.

Showering was another challenge. I could barely fit in the shower so Russ really struggled. Imagine a cruise ship shower if not travelling first class. There was maybe a quarter-inch lip separating it from the bathroom tile, so even with the thin shower curtain closed, water streamed across the bathroom. The toilet was so close to the wall that we had to remove the toilet paper from its holder in order to sit.

RESTAURANTS

Europeans still smoke. We wanted to sit outside at cafés when possible, but the cigarette smoke was overpowering.

We expected to find rich, dark, strong coffee and were not disappointed. On the next block from our hotel is the chain coffee shop/restaurant Baresso!. They have a multigrain roll that automatically comes with slices of cheese and butter. Quite filling.

Café Hovedtelegrafen: Else’s daughter, Ena, joined us for lunch at the upscale rooftop restaurant of the historic post office. It was too chilly to sit outside on the balcony overlooking the round tower, marble church, and Christiansborg (House of Parliament), but we could see everything through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The café is known for its traditional Danish dishes and the quality of preparation. Russ ate his first of several Danish burgers. The patty was thick, juicy, delicious, and like the others he later ate, the texture was a bit different from those in the States. I had a beautiful thyme cod salad with olives, pumpkin seeds, mixed greens, and bulgur wheat. Else ate traditional fish cakes, which she says typically are a combo of cod or a white fish and salmon. Ena had a “Phili” Veal sandwich which was nothing like the Philly Cheesesteak with which we were familiar.

Traktørstedet Gjorslev Bøgeskov is a lovely farmhouse sitting on the edge of the sea in the beech forest at Stevns (white cliffs), Sealand. Else and Erik and our other Danish friends took us there for an authentic Danish buffet. Murals decorate the walls above the L-shaped buffet tables. Even if the food hadn’t been as tasty or the full-bodied Danish beers so plentifully imbibed by all (except me, the lone wine drinker in our merry group), the views from this 1875 restaurant are spectacular enough for any celebration. We didn’t know until we arrived that this is where Else celebrated her 60th birthday.

I’m not usually timid about trying new foods, but I had to push myself to try two different pieces of pickled herring. The proper way to eat it, I was told, is to put it on a piece of buttered Danish rye bread and topped by raw onion ring slices, which is then called an open-faced sandwich. My hesitation stemmed from childhood, when my mom, aunts and grandma would slather herring chunks marinated in sour cream onto Jewish rye bread, a taste that still makes my face pucker with dislike. I felt like I was onstage with all eyes waiting for my reaction to the first bite. I didn’t like it this time any better than as a child, but at least I tried.

One thing Russ and I totally agreed upon is that the Danes seem to universally cook chicken better than anywhere else we’ve been. No matter which restaurant we were in, the chicken was superbly seasoned, roasted and juicy. Traktørstedet Gjorslev Bøgeskov’s buffet included unique preparations of pork, spare ribs, meatballs, roasted potatoes mixed with bleu cheese, salads and an array of local cheeses. I did my best to try a bite (or more) of it all. We ate, drank, laughed and then began anew for hours. It wasn’t until I was stuffed and thinking I couldn’t eat again for days that I learned we were meeting that evening at Jette and Arne’s house for what they loosely termed snacks and drinks.

Arne and Jette built their house on the edge of the ocean, but high enough that are no fears about flooding. They rebuilt the house in 1982 and then renovated it again recently. The two-story contemporary steel chromes with black accents is large by Danish standards (from others we’d seen), but what made it stand out were the finishing architectural touches that announced each detail was a labor of love. Many angles and niches. Homey but not cluttered. This house could grace the cover of any architectural magazine. Their hospitality, warmth, and friendship were as magnanimous as the graceful lines of the house. All our Danish friends were there. We ate Italian deli meats, cheeses, fig jam, unfamiliar spreads, drank wines and beer. The biggest surprise of the evening occurred when Christian brought out his guitar and explained he’d taken up playing upon his retirement. He now plays with a trio for senior citizen centers or charity fund raisers. He stated they wanted to give us a gift we’d not forget and that could only have come from them. He then passed out flyers with a picture of all of them taken when they’d visited Florida. Inside, were Danish sailor songs and an Irish ditty in English. They sang first to us, and we joined in for the Irish tune. Truly, not a gift to ever forget.

Holberg 19 is a small restaurant bar just two blocks off Nyhavn, where cafes border on both sides of the canal. Russ’ website and guidebook research led us here. Travel author Rick Steves says this tiny restaurant had better food at a fraction of the price of the canal’s plethora of cafes.  Holberg 19 (actual address) is owned by an American who has lived in Copenhagen 14 years. Our plate (about $14) contained four slices of different Italian meats, two slices of different cheeses, a 4 to 6” round of goat cheese, olives, roasted peppers and loads of toasted Italian bread.

ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS

Founded in 1479, the University of Copenhagen is the oldest university and research institution in Denmark. It still looms large in the city, attracting international students and renowned professors. Danish physicist Niels Henrik David Bohr made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Else’s dad worked for Niels Bohr there and this is where Else attended. She now teaches English to foreign and Danish students who are yet proficient in English at Copenhagen Adult Education Center. We received a guided tour of the campus when Russ and I both spoke and answered questions from two of her English classes.

Bicyclists are as prevalent as cars on a Los Angeles thoroughfare. What’s unique is how strictly bicyclists and pedestrians adhere to traffic signals. Bicyclists congregate before a red light, perhaps half a dozen abreast, albeit not in even rows, jockeying for position. Busses and cars have to be extremely careful when turning to the right so they don’t clip the riders closest to them. Most of the riders wear colorful neck scarves tied in stylized knots, even on the warmer days we experienced. Everyone, even girls in mini-skirts (with or without leggings underneath) rode sitting sternly upright on very plain, practical bikes. There wasn’t the hunched forward-as-if-in-a-race position we routinely see in the States. Few wear helmets. Bicycles are lined up diagonally or leaning against storefront walls on pretty much every block. Few are locked. Score one for honesty.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum hall perfect for events, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum hall perfect for events, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum was just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The art museum was built in 1888 around the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of the Carlsberg Breweries. The museum is like a stately tree, with branches going off in different directions, each branch a different collection, from French or Danish paintings and sculptures to the ancient Mediterranean collection. The “trunk” is the lush green landscape, fountains and statues of the indoor Winter Gardens. Along one wall, open window frames offer serene views from the Café Glyptoteket. This museum features French Impressionisn, more than 40 pieces from Gauguin, the complete series of Degas’ bronzes and 35 sculptures by Rodin. Every Tuesday admission is free. We were awed by the vast number Egyptian and Greek busts. Each room seemed to hold at least 100 sculptures. There was also an alluring collection of Egyptian, Etrurian and Greek pottery, glass and reliefs that had once graced architectural buildings.

Tivoli Gardens is said to have been Walt Disney’s inspiration for building Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. It also was within a 10-minute walk of our hotel. Considered the world’s first amusement park, it was built 200 years ago. The cost was $15 each to walk in. Rides are extra. Like American theme parks, this one is divided into zones of themed rides and restaurants. Actually, there seemed to be as many upscale sit-down restaurants as there were rides. At night, the twinkling lights breathe a fairyland quality over the grounds. Russ was determined to finally try his first Danish hot dog, which turns out to varieties of sausages. We found the only place in the park that served them. His came with lots of French fries. I enjoyed a tasty pulled pork sandwich topped with cole slaw.

Like its American theme park counterparts, a plethora of live entertainment is offered. Tivoli Gardens has a huge stage, adorned on three sides by an ornate façade. This night it was a performance in mime between a clown and a ballerina. In the summer, there are nightly concerts. Each night promoted a particular type of music or artist. Fridays are rock concerts. We wanted to hear what a Danish rock band sounded like, so stayed past the time we were ready to leave. That evening’s wind and chill turned our mild shivers into quakes, so when the concert had yet to begin by 9:45, we left.

Russ, Else, Karen & Erik at Stevns Klint,, a UNESCO site

Russ, Else, Karen & Erik at Stevns Klint,, a UNESCO site

Following our lunch at Traktørstedet Gjorslev Bøgeskov, Else and Erik took us to Stevns Klint, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At first glance, we saw a tiny church, half of which had crumbled into the sea from its rocky perch on the edge of the cliffs. The significance of Stevns Klint is in its history, which goes back 65 million years, when dinosaurs became extinct after an asteroid hit Earth. The thick layers of limestone and chalk are earmarked in what is called Fish Clay, thin layers that reveal the demarcation of passing time. For war historians, the site’s Cold War Museum shows the stand Denmark took alongside NATO during that war. If war had broken out between the East and the West, the peninsula of Stevns would have been the frontline.

Else, Russ and Erik at Frederiksborg Castle, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

Else, Russ and Erik at Frederiksborg Castle, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

Frederiksborg Castle is a must-see. Built around 1600-1625 by King Christian IV, known as the great builder of Copenhagen, we walked through two decades of glorious architecture. Denmark’s Museum of National History, founded by beer brewer J.C. Jacobsen, has been contained in the Castle since 1878.  Set on three small islets on Frederiksborg Castle Lake inside Hillerød Town, it’s considered the most opulent of the area castles. There were the expected royal portraits by French and Italian celebrated artists, but the pictures seemed to capture more of their personality than others we’ve seen. Gorgeous carved furniture adorned each room. One room (maybe a former ballroom) serves as a dress-up-and-get-your-photo-taken room for kids. There were replicas of gowns and male attire fitted to mannequins for youths to choose their outfit. Nearby, portraits or photos depicted the royal personage wearing that very attire.

One thing that really surprised us was the absence of guards in each room. In fact, during the two hours we toured the castle, we saw only one guard. Apparently the Danes expect their visitors to obey “no touching” etiquette. Note: if any member of your party is handicapped, this would not be the optimal attraction to visit unless they don’t mind missing out on the Chapel, the Great Hall and the cellars. The only access to the downstairs (where restrooms are also located) is a long, quite narrow spiral staircase.

We followed up our visit to Frederiksborg Castle with an afternoon trip to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 22 miles north of Copenhagen. It’s widely popular for tourists and locals alike. Their exhibits focus on World War II to current art and is considered a testament to modern Danish architecture. What impressed us most was not the special exhibit, but the amazing food in their cafeteria and their two-story gift shop. You could buy the buffet or individual items at the deli counter. We were told that people will sometimes come just for the food. I can see why. Everything I tried was outstanding. I particularly enjoyed a leek soup with a touch of dill oil added; the cauliflower salad, the charred and perfectly seasoned chicken, and small plates of thinly-sliced roast beef they call veal.

From there we drove around the Queen’s Castle, the winter home of the Danish royal family. Interestingly, Danish royalty has no real power except to sign papers. They dress well to keep up appearances, but aren’t allowed to vote. As the Danes are culturally quite informal, even the royal family are addressed by their first names.

Rosenberg Castle, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

Rosenberg Castle, Copenhagen. photo by Karen

We also visited Rosenborg Castle, a Dutch renaissance beauty built in the early 17th century by King Christian IV. Russ and I walked there from our hotel, through the King’s manicured Garden. We explored the Knight’s Hall with the Coronation thrones, oohed and aahed over the Crown jewels, and paused to admire the vast Venetian glass collection. We learned that not everything was original to the Castle, but was collected from many places and brought there to show off Danish history, craftsmanship, and artistry. Clothes worn by some of the women in the paintings looked like they were the inspirations for Hollywood period-era film extravaganzas. Furniture was heavily inlaid with gold. Intricately-carved ivory pieces showcased in glass cases were carved by bored Royals. We saw a special lathe disguised as a French-Rococo-style furniture piece owned by the Queen, who used it to carve her ivory sculptures. Fantastic marquetry on desks and armoires. Watched Danish guards practicing their band movements for the daily parades for the changing of the guard.

Canal boat rides: Rick Steves’ guide book recommended we take a particular one-hour guided tour of the canal. We took his advice. We paid 40 DKR and our boat was covered (and as it began raining, that was a blessing). Next to our boat was another company. Same hour tour. Same size boat. No cover. Literally, double the price.

wall art in Christiana, Cophenhagen. photo by Karen

wall art in Christiana, Cophenhagen. photo by Karen

Christiana is a city within the city of Copenhagen. Actually, think of it as a compound created when a rebellious faction of hippies squatted on a former military base and set up their own government in 1971. Residency requirements to live in their enclave are strict. Apparently you need to be approved by their governing body. The rules once you walk within their accessible entry ways are simple: mind your own business and don’t take any photos of the pot dealers operating from little kiosks that remind me of the huts I’ve seen in Vietnam War era movies; ramshackle huts covered in a thick ropey netting. The sales are not legal, but generally tolerated, though there was a bust the next day and from what we were told, business as usual the day after that.

There were a few vendors selling jewelry and crafts from places like Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Guatemala. It reminded me of Grateful Dead concert vendors set up in parking lots, trying to make enough so they could buy tickets.  Christiana’s government pays Copenhagen for certain services, but are otherwise self-sufficient. Buildings and signs are decorated in colorful graffiti art. Residents act as paid tour guides. The day we were there, a middle school aged group was being led about. There are kid zones buffered with ‘keep out’ signs and bigger, more colorfully painted words like Play and Dream.

carved wooden pipe organ in church across from Christiana. photo by Karen

carved wooden pipe organ in church across from Christiana. photo by Karen

Across the street from Christiana is a church with a spectacular wooden carved pipe organ. Our schedule didn’t allow us to wait for the daily half-hour concert. That day it was to be Bach compositions.

Observations

*Copenhagen is very casual. Not in the Florida style of casual, but much more stylishly hip while looking comfortable. Clothes are simple lines and mostly muted darker colors.

*Hamburgers, French fries, and sausages are ubiquitous. Russ ate several of each. The hamburgers had a bit of a different texture and taste than in the U.S, but they are found on every menu. Polish (sausages in about 20 different styles) carts are on every block.

*If the air outside is chilly, the buildings are kept quite warm. Very few places have air conditioning. Rule for dressing: layer, layer, layer.

*Most everyone speaks English. It is mandatory in schools and is a requisite for good employment. Typically, Danes speak at least three languages. Immigrants and Danes over 18 who don’t have a Danish High School diploma are paid by the government to attend Adult Education Center, our version of high school, in order to become proficient in English, Danish, math, science and social science in order to qualify for college. If a student tries, but fails their exams, they are paid to stay in school and retake the classes.

*Russ and I spoke to two of Else’s English class students. One class was for beginners and the other for more proficient upper level students. Many are refugees. The students had each prepared questions for us about our life, careers and how we know Else. At the time we were there, Middle Eastern refugees were flooding Europe. Hungary had closed its borders. Sweden’s open door welcome mat to immigrants was widely discussed, particularly because Danish policy is more restrictive. The Danes and former refugees in Else’s classes were embarrassed that the refugees didn’t want to stop (where they’d have to register) or stay in Denmark.

*7-11 convenience stores in Denmark are not what we expect in America. The one on the corner by our hotel boasted multitudes of fresh pastries, donuts, Greek yogurts and a system of describing all their offerings as appropriate to which type of diet: from paleo to vegetarian to vegan.

*Sidewalks are often cobbled and patterned. Danes have laid concrete tracks about a foot-wide on sidewalks. Russ thought it was so handicapped people would have a smooth surface to wheel or walk on, but Erik says it’s just a design element.

*Danes are serious about traffic signals. My law-abiding husband had a conniption when I walked across the road against the light, even though no traffic was in sight. Little did I know until later I could have gotten into trouble for that.

*Shops close early, even in tourist areas. By 6 pm, few are open.

*Pizza and Italian food is offered by more restaurants than any other ethnicity, though burgers with fries ranks a close second. Steak is another popular menu item, and always served with Bearnaise. I think Russ was ready to move to Denmark for that reason alone.

*Copenhagen’s architecture is rife with tall spires, towers, and carved intricate designs. Fanciest buildings were garnished in copper that now have a vertigris patina.

building in Malmo, Sweden. photo by Karen

building in Malmo, Sweden. photo by Karen

MALMO, SWEDEN

We drove over a long bridge to Malmo, Sweden. More to say we’d been to Sweden than expecting to see much. Malmo is a seaside city with many streets branching off a central plaza. Surrounding the plaza are restaurants, most of which have outside seating when the weather permits. Malmo is a tad less expensive than Denmark, even though they share a similar monetary system. The language is also similar, though Else said the Danes understand the Swedes better than the Swedes pick up the nuances of the Danes. Part of the problem are age-old rivalries between the two countries over land ownership and power plays. We marveled at buildings much older than the United States. Malmo’s buildings are more formal, squared and stately than the fanciful and ornate designs in Copenhagen.

We ate at Piccolo Mondo in the plaza. We chose it because it seemed to be the only one well-patronized. Good choice. The waiters pretty much ignored us (because Else and Erik are Danish???) but the food was more than worth their snubs. We sat by the picture window overlooking the plaza, in a large room lined with shelves of books along one side. Russ ordered Saltimbocca made from pork, rather than the veal with which we are more accustomed. Erik and I both had a chicken, pear, and gorgonzola cream sauce pasta dish that was as filling as it was rich and savory. We also shared a Caesar salad unlike any I’ve had; with bacon, chicken,green olives and pita chips… no parmesan cheese. The dressing also wasn’t one we expected, but wonderful just the same.

Russ and me in front of City Hall in Malmo, Sweden

Russ and me in front of City Hall in Malmo, Sweden

We strolled through Malmo’s shopping area, containing the upscale chain stores typical of any luxury shopping district. Else and Russ ate soft vanilla ice cream with a distinctive flavor that they both pronounced wonderful.

As our trip was right before the immigration crisis, there were no visa or passport checks to travel from one country to the other. One thing we were surprised at is Sweden’s zero tolerance for drinking while driving. This doesn’t mean no drunk driving. This means if you’ve even had one drink, the consequences are severe if stopped for any reason.

ICELAND: AN ETHEREAL BEAUTY IN A SURREAL LANDSCAPE

Iceland has few drivable roads outside of the major cities, but unless you can read Icelandic (pure form of old Norse), getting around is not easy. Russ is an excellent navigator. I suck. Even he was ready to pull out his hair trying to decipher the street names (few street lamps light those up) or the map given us at Hertz. We drove in circles and in the wrong direction multiple times just trying to find our 12-room B&B, The Phoenix, and then to secure one of the limited street parking spots.

Hotel Phoenix is divine. We heartily recommend it if you adore quaint, intimate old-fashioned décor reminiscent of Victorian or Deco ages. Beautifully furnished. Five breakfast tables lined one wall of the downstairs, providing a view of their back yard that is a work of art in progress. We were overjoyed after staying at the Alexandra to find a real shower and modern plumbing. We could safely open our windows to enjoy the night breeze without hearing traffic noise. Two comforters lined the bed. Apparently in Scandinavian countries, people don’t share blankets. Hearty breakfasts on bone china are served each morning, with fresh pastries, breads, Skyr (local yogurt loaded with national pride), local jams, cheeses, nutty granola, berries, and thin slices of ham. Easy listening music soothes.

Strokker building up to a full burst, Iceland. photo by Karen

Strokker building up to a full burst, Iceland. photo by Karen

Iceland was our third country to visit within a few days and once again, the monetary system is similar but different. Here, 1000 Icelandic “dollars” are worth about $8 U.S.

One of our two hotel hosts, a couple who have a second home in Lake Mary, Florida, recommended we try a restaurant about a four or five-block walk. Translated, the name means Pots & Pan. I had the salad bar and homemade soups for about $7 extra. My dinner was grilled lamb with Béarnaise, and baked potato. The salad bar had many items not typically found in the U.S, such as Moroccan couscous, feta, apples in a sour cream sauce, fresh beets marinated etc. The soup was vegetable, but had the taste and texture more of butternut squash. Excellent! The portions of lamb, one of Iceland’s main products, were so huge that I had to leave too much of it behind. So sad to waste it. Russ had a large steak filet with Béarnaise, French fries and then an extremely pretty crème Brulee dessert. We toasted our wedding anniversary (that day) and were happy we were walking off both the dinner and our wine.

For our only full day in Iceland, we drove around the Golden Circle, a route around Iceland that takes in the main attractions: geysers, craters, waterfalls etc. If you’re thinking at this moment that I’m going to mention the Blue Lagoon, think again.

We were told by various locals that they’re actually embarrassed by the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it brings tourists, but it is also the only manmade attraction on the island and one that garners the most publicity. It’s actually piped in water and is not naturally blue. We’re told a person typically spends about two hours there, for about $50 a person entrance fee. One hour in the water, and one hour of walking around, changing clothes, showering… You are charged additionally for towels and beach sandals. The clay silt on the bottom of the lagoon clings to your hair and body, so a shower is pretty much a must. We passed and went for the more natural adventures.

Our hosts said travelling the Golden Circle on one’s own time table could easily take up to eight hours, especially if you enjoy lingering and taking lots of photos. We took even longer. We followed our hosts’ advice on taking the roads less travelled by tour buses and were delighted at the unusual topography we might have otherwise missed. Iceland is otherworldly. One minute you are in the midst of a lava field and the next, driving by emerald grass fields or grass and flowers seeming 50 shades of yellows in the bright sun. There are stark mountains and rocks reminiscent of a moon scape and farming fields that appear isolated. We were warned there are few restaurants and I think only one gas station along the drive, so take advantage of each when possible at state-run facilities.

Gullfoss Falls was one of our favorite stops. We descended a steep multi-tiered staircase (a challenge to reclimb later) and then climbed up and over rocks to reach the waterfall overlook. Gullfoss is reputed to be more powerful than Niagara Falls. As we were descending the stairs, an enormous rainbow arced over the falls. The enormity of the upper and lower waterfalls reflects the glacial floods that carved the channel during the Ice Age.

We also walked around Keriða, a 6,500-year-old crater that looks like a black water retention pond when you’re looking at it from above, but when you take a photo, the water looks royal blue. Keriða lies in Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone, through the Reykjanes peninsula and the Langjökull glacier, the second largest ice cap in Iceland. The walk was steeply uphill but well worth the trek.

Þingvellir, the famous “crack in the earth”, where the continental plates have shifted and a few remote buildings, Iceland. photo by Karen

Þingvellir, the famous “crack in the earth”, where the continental plates have shifted and a few remote buildings, Iceland. photo by Karen

We gawked at geysers, watching Strokkur boil up and spew about every 10 minutes. The other geysers send up plumes of white smoke, but no others blew high into the sky.

At another stop we walked along Þingvellir, the famous “crack in the earth”, where the continental plates have shifted. Black lava rock cliffs, broken mountains all lend a supernatural air. Pingvellir’s National Park was the site of one of the oldest existing parliaments in the world, established in 930 to 1262. It’s easy to see why Iceland serves as a backdrop for Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings scenes.

langostino dinner, Iceland. fresh from the sea

langostino dinner, Iceland. fresh from the sea

heading back to Reykjavik, we headed to a seaside town with a restaurant serving the best lobster on Iceland (so our hosts said). There wasn’t much separating this restaurant from the sea other than a dune. We incorrectly assumed that a restaurant would have a full menu, with lobster highlighted. The limited menu was lobster, lobster, lobster and some lamb. I was happy. Russ, who is allergic to seafood and doesn’t like lamb, was not. He ended up eating an adult portion from the children’s menu of chicken tenders and French fries. He said it tasted like chicken tenders you’d make for a child, lacking any discernable flavors. I had a huge platter of various salads that accompanied my 12 langostino that could have been swimming in the sea right before being sautéed in a buttery, seasoned sauce. I devoured them!

Miscellaneous information we found intriguing:

  • Bars stay open until 1 am during the week and 5 on weekends, but liquor stores close by 8 pm… so bars are a huge draw.
  • An educational video on Icelandair states that 90% of Icelanders are highly educated and yet, about 60% believe in elves.
  • Like Denmark, pretty much everyone speaks English as a second language.
  • We saw little traffic except in parking lots by the major tourist attractions. Often we were the only visible car on the road. Heaven help anyone with car trouble. It’s not as if there are tow trucks prowling the highways looking for lost tourists. There’s also no cell service when outside the cities.
  • There are few paved roads. Main artery roads are numbered in the low digits. Three-digit roads are black dirt, only serviceable with a four-wheel drive.This was a trip that flew beyond any expectations. You can’t put a price on the friendships we enjoyed that sweetened each shared experience. Neither can you really compare one city or country to another as they are vastly different in their amenities, cuisine and attractions. It was a vacation we’ll never forget and one unlikely to be duplicated, even if revisiting the same venues. May every journey you travel be as rich and rewarding in memories.
  • FINAL THOUGHTSThis was a trip that flew beyond any expectations. You can’t put a price on the friendships we enjoyed that sweetened each shared experience. Neither can you really compare one city or country to another as they are vastly different in their amenities, cuisine and attractions. It was a vacation we’ll never forget and one unlikely to be duplicated, even if revisiting the same venues. May every journey you travel be as rich and rewarding in memories. 

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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